Connect with us

Politics and Society

South Africans want urban land more than white farms

“Expropriation without compensation” is unlikely to speed up land reform. Meanwhile, mass evictions of land occupiers are often from land already owned by the state.




Since a motion was passed in Parliament to review section 25 of the Constitution of South Africa to allow for state expropriation of property without compensation, the world, not most South Africans, seem to have flown into a panic. Foreign editorials and headlines screamed that the country is now firmly on the road to economic disaster, following Zimbabwe’s bad example. Australian home affairs minister Peter Dutton offered to fast-track visas for white South Africans. Russia Today put out a tweet with a maliciously chosen photograph: ‘New South African president wants to seize land from white farmers’. A race civil war is looming according to social media.

Meanwhile back at home, those who think they are in the know, somewhat complacently, rest assured that President Ramaphosa is speaking out of two corners of his mouth and has no intention of arbitrarily dispossessing property owners and collapsing the economy. But can he control the expectations of the people?

When Ramaphosa was 10 years old his family was forced by the apartheid government from their home in Western Native Township and relocated in backwater Tshiawelo (reserved for Tsonga and Venda speakers only), 35km from Johannesburg. He has lived the racial injustices of the past, but that formative experience would also have shown him first-hand the pain of dispossession by an all-powerful state engaged in social engineering.

Read: South Africa’s National Assembly supports land expropriation without compensation


The racist characterisation of the land reform by some media is played into by what is at the moment very much a minority of firebrands bent on “land revenge”, and visiting the sins of the white fathers on their sons. But Cope party leader Mosiuoa “Terror” Lekota points out, an injustice cannot be corrected by perpetuating the same injustice of land confiscation on a new generation, especially not if it means the reintroduction of racialism.

Julius Malema, the populist leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), says President Cyril Ramaphosa and a large contingent of the ANC leadership don’t really believe in their own resolution and have watered it down. But Malema is thin on details as to how his unwatered-down version – effectively making the state the custodian of all land – would work.

File picture. Julius Malema, leader of the opposition party Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), addresses supporters at the launch of the party’s local election manifesto in Soweto, near Johannesburg, South Africa, 30 April 2016 Photo: ANP/EPA Cornell Tukiri

What the 54th National Conference of the ANC actually resolved was this: “the ANC should, as a matter of policy, pursue expropriation of land without compensation. This should be pursued without destabilising the agricultural sector, without endangering food security in our country and without undermining economic growth and job creation”.

When the EFF introduced the expropriation motion in Parliament, the ANC panicked for the opposite reason to the rest of the world; it could not be seen to be out-radicalised with national elections looming next year. On top of this, the motion was beautifully stage-managed by the EFF, with Malema giving an emotive speech about colonial deprivation and the debate falling perfectly on the 40th anniversary of the death of revered Pan Africanist Congress founder Robert Sobukwe. The motion passed overwhelmingly with 241 in favour, 83 against.

A South African woman working on one of South Africa’s commercial farms. Photo: Aus­tralian Govt, Licensed under Cre­ative Com­mons 2.0

The ANC and the government now sit with a dilemma. Expropriation without compensation has been seized upon as the panacea for government’s hopelessly inept and failed attempt at land restitution for the past two decades. But the slow progress in land reform has been due to a raft of factors, none of which are addressed by expropriation without compensation.

Depressingly, there are to date far too many examples of where the limited land restitution government has achieved has done nothing to redress localised unemployment and poverty. Black rural farmers in general remain impoverished, sometimes having to give their crops away.

Ironically, the first land that might be expropriated without compensation could be the land of the Zulu king, the millions of hectares of the Ingonyama Trust signed over to him by FW de Klerk in the last hours of apartheid to keep it out of the hands of the ANC.


When Robert Mugabe in 2013, then still president, was asked in a controversial television interview with Dali Tambo if the land expropriation policy he instituted in Zimbabwe would work in South Africa, Mugabe gave an emphatic, “No!” He said South Africans were urbanised unlike Zimbabweans and people had neither the inclination nor the farming skills. Meanwhile, Zimbabwe is now in the process of courting white farmers with 99-year leases to try and revive its commercial agriculture.

Read: Zim’s urban land as the new profit frontier of the political elite

Conscious of the failings to the north, most “thinking people” are well aware that there is no guarantee that expropriation without compensation will have the desired effect, while it is patently clear that it stands to jeopardise the entire economy, even if perceptions are misguided.

There are innumerable reasons why this is the case and economists across the spectrum from left to right will quickly innumerate them, from who sorts out the R160 billion debt that white farmers currently owe the banks to where will the resources come from to work the land once it is expropriated and thus rendered valueless. Policy wonks and legal minds will explain how much slower and almost unworkable the idea will be in practice as long as South Africa remains a democracy. Experts on land will point out how the figures for black ownership are extremely hazy and that there are no figures that give us a complete picture.

However, we do know that land ownership in South Africa is unsustainably skewed racially (and also in terms of gender) and needs urgent attention after hundreds of years of brutal land dispossession, dispossession that did not stop with the end of apartheid but has continued. Perhaps a million farm workershave been displaced since the advent of democracy.


But here is what most “thinking people” miss: for the majority of South Africans it is not about grabbing white farms as the right-wing media have characterised it, but about recognition of the injustice perpetrated on black people when their land was expropriated without compensation by colonial rulers and later a market economy. It is about dignity. It is about restorative justice. It is about acknowledgment of not only the material but the spiritual destruction of a people historically stripped of their birth right.


A mother holds her daughter to try to keep warm in what remains of her house that was demolished after the squatter community they lived with where evicted from land owned by a mining house, Johannesburg, South Africa, 27 June 2007. Photo: ANP/ EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

Expectations have now been dramatically raised and not only in the rural areas. Minister for Human Settlements in the Western Cape Bonginkosi Madikizela (DA) told me at a Cape Town Press Club luncheon that he blames the passing of the expropriation motion in Parliament for the spate of recent large-scale land occupations experienced in the Cape Town metro in the past two months – in KraaifonteinPhilippi and Mitchells PlainGugulethu, various parts of Khayelitsha, and elsewhere. The City’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit appears for now to be overwhelmed. Land “grabs” are happening in metros across the country. One land occupier told GroundUp, “The ANC said that we would be getting back the land.” Ramaphosa has spoken out against land invasions as criminal acts. But mass evictions of desperate people are fuelling anger and resentment and adding to the misery of the poor.

People living in cramped backyard shacks, sometimes with their grandchildren, children and their parents, who cannot afford to pay rent because there are no jobs, are now occupying empty land to build homes and live rent free. Often the land they occupy is said to be “earmarked for development”, but it has been standing vacant for decades. People have grown up, married, had children, seen their parents pass away, all the while paying an exorbitant rental to live in a tiny, tin shack, sleeping on the floor, looking out on empty land. It makes no common sense to them to be prevented from occupying the land.

According to the City of Cape Town over 340,000 residents are registered on its housing database and with only 15,000 new “housing opportunities” delivered per annum, the current housing list will take 23 years to clear. The City estimates 650,000 families will need state-subsidised housing in Cape Town over the next 20 years. Other municipalities are in a similar fix.

If there is an argument for expediting land expropriation for the public good it is at its most urgent in the urban areas. The irony is that many, if not the majority, of these evictions are happening from land already owned by the state.